Companies that cut back recruiting efforts as the economy slid into recession are beginning to think about hiring again as a recovery begins to take shape.
Logistics and supply chain management skills will be in high demand, experts say, as businesses look for the expertise they need to deal with changes over the past two years in the economic and regulatory environment. Those include increasingly complex rules surrounding trade, changes in overseas sourcing strategies, transportation-driven corporate sustainability goals, a weakened carrier base and other issues that could translate into added pressure on overall costs for large and small businesses.
There’s a lurking problem, however, for manufacturers, retailers and others needing to strengthen slimmed-down logistics and transportation departments. Despite the proliferation of supply chain programs and courses at colleges and universities across the U.S., and the growing field of talented graduates with four-year and advanced degrees in logistics and supply chain disciplines, many businesses have a difficult time finding employees with the right skills to fit the required jobs.
“For about three years now, we’ve heard shippers saying they cannot find new employees with relevant supply chain expertise,” said Jim Butts, senior vice president at C.H. Robinson Worldwide, a $7.6 billion third-party logistics company that works with about 35,000 shippers in a variety of global industries.
Although today’s graduates are well-educated, “many shippers would say these students don’t have enough experience within any particular industry,” Butts said.
It’s a conflict between the need for students to master broad theories to tackle global procurement and supply chain problems and to learn the industrial details in execution that vary between industries and companies. It’s the difference between learning the art and learning the craft.
“It’s hard to understand what logistics, transportation and supply chain management mean in a specific organization because they can take so many variations,” Butts said. “Working at a 3PL like C.H. Robinson is very different from working in the supply chain department at a major retailer or manufacturer, and that’s substantially different from working at a carrier. And then there are big operational differences between different carriers and different modes.”
To be truly valuable to potential employers, supply chain graduates must be street smart as well as book smart, to understand not only how global supply chains work but how to execute and take the actions that make them work at shipping lines, railroads, forwarders and trucking companies.
“We can teach them all the fundamentals, but ultimately this generation is only going to succeed if they understand the context,” said Bill DeWitt, associate dean of the Loeb-Sullivan School of Business at the Maine Maritime Academy. “We need to have a new generation coming out of the logistics schools that knows how to make things work when they hit the ground.”
That demands a new level of cooperation and investment by industry and academia, DeWitt said. When it comes to training talent, “I think the industry has gotten complacent in looking at the next generation, and investing in it,” he said. That investment is critical if “you want operational people to run terminals, to get involved on the hands-on side of the business.”
Many transportation and logistics companies invest a lot of time and money in education, from offering internships to endowing chairs at universities to even running their own in-house executive training academies, as A.P. Moller-Maersk does through its Maersk International Shipping Education program.
DeWitt believes these efforts should be much more widespread, however, especially among those businesses struggling to recruit and keep logistics talent. “I’m a little disappointed that corporations aren’t stepping up to the academic plate,” he said.
That doesn’t necessarily require the enormous resources of a Maersk; even smaller trucking companies could send a truck and driver to visit a campus, or invite students to tour a less-than-truckload terminal or truckload carrier dispatch center. And the earlier that happens in a student’s logistics studies, the better.
“A truck driver came to campus one time and he was surprised when the students asked him about a thousand questions,” DeWitt said. It was quite a useful experience, he said, for students who may someday be directing fleet operations or working with motor carriers at a shipper or logistics company. In fact, one of DeWitt’s former students at the Maine Maritime Academy took a job in private fleet management with a major retailer — a long way from the sea. “The students here want to go into the hands-on side of the business,” he said.
C.H. Robinson is heavily involved in supporting logistics education. Butts serves on the advisory board for the University of Michigan’s supply chain program. He and other executives attend college job fairs to recruit graduates and interns and visit classrooms as guest speakers.
“We think it’s important,” Butts said. “Not only do you build your organization from the good people that you get, it’s a good way to contribute to the industry.”
He thinks the nation’s logistics schools are doing a good job, but notes that today’s students are exposed to a huge and growing volume of information.
“When I visited Elmhurst College in Illinois, the students there all had laptops and had Googled my name before I even arrived in the classroom,” he said. “They get a lot of information today, but they have a harder time with the context.”
One of the most important contributions a company can make is to establish a clear career path for logistics candidates, Butts said. “If you look at the way many shippers are set up, many of them look at supply chain and logistics as a cost center, and their big concern is to reduce costs and keep them at a minimum,” he said. “That often comes at the expense of what good job candidates might view as a career path.”
Those careers may lead candidates away from shippers to third-party logistics suppliers such as C.H. Robinson. “Economic conditions over the past year meant many companies couldn’t hire new people and had to reduce their personnel, so they came to us,” Butts said. “We spend a lot of time and resources making sure that employees have reasonable career paths and compelling futures.”
There will be plenty of opportunity for those dedicated to careers in logistics. DeWitt points to a growing “generation gap” in the transportation field. “We have a lot of very experienced, strong managers and executives in transportation who are moving out; they’re at the end of their careers. I don’t know that we have enough operational knowledge in the generation coming behind them that we need.”
The good news is the downturn in the economy heightened the focus on the importance of transportation and logistics in the supply chain. “Where in the past it was perhaps more casual, now there’s a real drive to it,” DeWitt said.
That’s pushed in part by new sourcing strategies that increase the need for experienced hands in domestic transportation in the U.S. “The execution piece can be pretty challenging,” he said. “You have to have somebody who understands that business.”
Contact William B. Cassidy at email@example.com.